Thursday, October 26, 2017

Creepy Christian caregivers from my hometown...

I guess today's earlier post intrigued me, because I've spent the past couple of hours digging up old news about churches in the county where I grew up.  Gloucester, Virginia was a pretty low key, rural kind of place back in the day, but there was the occasional scandal.  Today's story has a long history that came to a head in the 1990s.  It's a bit juicy and convoluted.

I moved to Gloucester County in June 1980.  I was eight years old.  That was the same year Hopesville Boys Ranch was closed, because new therapeutic methods were allowing families to keep their troubled kids at home instead of sending them to "homes" to live.

Hopesville Boys Ranch was opened in 1967 by the late Reverend Frank Seal and his wife, Ruth.  Reverend Seal was a Methodist minister who had worked in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia for years before he and his wife purchased 30 acres of land in Dutton, right on the border between Gloucester and Mathews counties.  When the ranch closed in 1980, it was later reopened as a Christian school, Hopesville Christian Academy.

About thirty years ago, when I was about 14 or 15, I went through a brief phase when I rode my bike from Gloucester to Mathews just for kicks.  I'd go twenty or thirty miles just because I felt like it, which seems especially weird, since I had a horse at the time and probably should have been at the barn.  I remember riding through the small, rural community of Dutton and saw the signs for Hopesville Christian Academy.

I remember wondering what went on at the school.  I knew it was really tiny.  Even back in those days, religion kind of gave me the creeps.  I knew very little about the Christian school, only that it sat kind of eerily on the side of the road.  I didn't know anyone who went there, though, and in time forgot about it.  The school closed at the end of the 1988-89 school year.  Other Christian schools had opened in the area, diminishing the need for Hopesville Christian Academy.  I graduated from Gloucester High School in 1990 and spent the next nine years moving back and forth to Gloucester. I went to college, served in the Peace Corps, and finally, in 1999, left for graduate school.  I have not lived in Gloucester since 1999 and have not visited since 2010.

Many years after I rode past it on my bike, I suddenly remembered that Christian school and home.  I didn't remember the name of the place, but I remembered what it looked like and where it was.  I started obsessively digging and finally found some news reports about it reopening as a children's home back in the early 1990s.  A 1994 news article reported that the facility had been reopened as a home for abused, abandoned, and neglected boys and girls.

Frank Seal and his wife still ran Hopesville, although they also had help from two daughters, Joyce Clarke and Sheila Boettcher, and Boettcher's husband, Gerald.  Gerald Boettcher had been in the Coast Guard and, I gather, had ties to nearby Milford Haven, a tiny Coast Guard station in Mathews, Virginia.  In all my years living in Gloucester, I don't think I ever visited Milford Haven.  I doubt there was much to see there, anyway.

The facility, renamed Hopesville Ministries Children's Home, was granted an initial permit that allowed them to accept six children.  Later, they were licensed for up to 36 children, and had community support in renovating the facilities to include two cottages, a gymnasium, and an office.  Sheila Boettcher had said that residents would be referred from across the state by the Division of Social Services and privately by parents and grandparents of children in dysfunctional home environments.  Eventually, there were also plans to reopen the Christian school, although the first residents would be attending Gloucester County public schools and getting therapy from local practitioners.  It all sounded so... "hopeful".

Just five years later, in June of 1999, the director of the home, 46 year old Gerald Boettcher, was in the news.  Mr. Boettcher, who had left the Coast Guard and was also working as a contract driver delivering mail, had attempted suicide.

Boettcher had been accused of committing sex crimes against two girls who had been living at the home between June 1, 1995 and June of 1999.  Aware that he was being investigated, Boettcher threatened to kill himself by placing a gun in his mouth.

Boettcher was taken to Riverside Walter Reed Hospital in Gloucester, where he was later arrested.  For some reason, he was later taken to Central State Hospital, the state run psychiatric hospital in Petersburg, which is south of Richmond.  I would have expected him to go to Eastern State Hospital, in Williamsburg.  Williamsburg is closer to Gloucester than Petersburg is, but perhaps the state divides these cases by region.  I know Gloucester is often lumped in with Richmond, even though Richmond is not closer as the crow flies.

Boettcher was accused of forcible sodomy, sexual penetration and indecent liberties with both girls and, it seemed, more charges were likely.  At the time of Boettcher's arrest, the victims were 16 and 17 years old.  The Division of Social Services took the six children who were at the home and sent them back to their parents and/or relatives.  None of the children were from Gloucester; apparently, the local social services agency had never referred anyone to that facility.

Interestingly enough, I was living in Gloucester at that time, but I don't remember this story in the news.  Back then, I read the newspaper every day.

In December of 1999, Boettcher pleaded guilty to five sex charges, bringing his grand total of guilty pleas to eight.  His mother-in-law, Ruth Seal, and the rest of his family and friends reportedly "seemed stunned and angry" at the outcome of the trial.  They repeatedly said that he didn't do it.  Ruth Seal was upset that she didn't get to testify.  Boettcher's wife, Sheila Boettcher, told the mother of one of the victims that she hoped she "rotted in Hell."

Despite his family's outrage and horror, it does appear that the evidence against Boettcher was overwhelming.  Boettcher admitted to both a Gloucester County Sheriff's Office investigator and a hospital crisis worker that he had been having sexual contact with the girls.  Additionally, a computer forensics analyst had hacked into Boettcher's computer and found documents for the "Golden Hearts Club".  One of the victims, then sixteen, also testified that Boettcher had her stand naked and recite vows to enter the Golden Hearts Club.  He had evidently told her that she "had qualities he hadn't seen in anybody in a long time."  The victim said she had moved to Hopesville when she was fourteen and Boettcher had started having sexual intercourse with her two months later.  The offenses took place at the home, in Boettcher's vehicles, and at a construction site where Boettcher and his wife were building a home.

Boettcher was finally caught when another resident saw him kissing the girl intimately.  The resident told a housemother, who then contacted social services.  At that point, local law enforcement became involved.

Boettcher faced up to 45 years in prison for his crimes.  In Mach 2000, he was sentenced to 19 years, with ten suspended.  I see Boettcher was defended by Michael Soberick.  I remember in the late 1980s, Mr. Soberick ran for public office in Gloucester.  I only remember that because I was taking a high school journalism course at the time and, as part of that course, attended a question and answer session he gave.  I remember it being boring, except that there was a guy in my class there upon whom I had a massive crush.  My dad had taken me to the session, which was held at Rappahannock Community College.  My dad said my crush looked like a "wimp".  Good thing I ended up with Bill, who did meet with my dad's approval.    

I see Boettcher is now listed as a registered sex offender and apparently lives in Dutton.  His neighbors evidently aren't too pleased, although he has apparently not caused any problems since he got out of prison.  I also found the Hopesville property listed for sale, although there appears to be a discrepancy in the years reported when the buildings were erected.  Frank Seal, who founded Hopesville in its many incarnations, died in 2003.

It's amazing what a long memory, a little morbid curiosity, and a lot of nosey proclivities will get you.  Incidentally, this is certainly not the first time a trusted man from the area where I grew up turned out to be a pervert.  In 2008, there was a huge scandal in nearby Middlesex County when it turned out that the recently retired social worker, Arthur Bracke, had been molesting boys in his care for years.  I have written about Mr. Bracke, now mercifully deceased, several times.  Although I would be the first to say that men are often unfairly accused of being monsters, the evidence is clear that sometimes the ones we trust the most turn out to be total creeps.  It also drives home the fact that kids who go to foster care sometimes wind up in situations as bad or worse than the ones they've escaped.

I don't know much about the late Reverend Frank Seal, but it does sound like he was probably a good man who had good intentions when he started his boys' home and Christian school.  I'm sure this whole catastrophe was awful for him and his family.  In more than one article about his school/home, he is quoted as saying "It has been my life...  Jesus said, `Suffer the little children to come unto me.' I've tried to live up to that.''

There were even some people testifying in favor of Mr. Boettcher, who, like many sex offenders, wasn't a complete monster.  Of course, they almost never are "complete monsters".  If they were monsters, they would have a much harder time getting access to their victims.  But anyway, I do remember Hopesville Christian Academy and how creepy it seemed as I passed it on my bike thirty years ago.  I guess my intuition was dead on again.      

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